From The Asian Reporter, V13, #9 (February 25-March
3, 2003), page 11.
Candidates for compassion
By Rohinton Mistry
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
Hardcover, 434 pages, $26.00
By Josephine Bridges
"Last week, the phone company was laying state-of-the-art
fiber-optic cable near my house, but the ditch was being dug with pickaxes
and spades, the rubble carried away on womenís heads," narrates one
of the many splendid minor characters in this novel. Painstaking in detail
yet epic in scope, Family Matters, set in mid-1990s Bombay, is the
story of a small, troubled family and a large, troubled city.
Nariman Vakeel, a professor of English literature whose years have
already held their share of tragedy, finds respite from the Parkinsonís
disease which is slowly killing him by exploring the world outside the
ironically named "Chateau Felicity," where he lives in discord
with his stepchildren.
When he breaks his leg on a walk he takes against stepdaughter Coomyís
advice, she adds yet another resentment against him to her burgeoning
list. Some readers will dismiss her as lazy and conniving, while others
may find her overwhelmed and empathize with her distress, if not her
strategies to ease it. With the reluctant help of her brother Jal, who
fiddles with his hearing aid rather than take a position in the ongoing
conflict, Coomy crafts a scheme to foist Narimanís care onto their
Roxana may well be a saint. Already crowded into a tiny apartment in
"Pleasant Villa" with her husband and two sons, she takes in her
father and uncomplainingly adds his care to a daily schedule already full
and a purse nearly empty. The boys are believable and delightful children.
Elder brother Murad mutters that if he always had to wait until he was
older, "there would be so much piled up for him to do, there would be
no time for it all." When a classmate bribes younger brother Jehangir,
a homework monitor, he looks at the money and thinks, "A small packet
of butter. Or mutton for one meal. Or a week of eggs for Daddyís
breakfast. Thatís what he was holding in his hand."
Roxanaís husband Yezad, the novelís most complex character, links
family life to work, politics, and religion. A man swinging between
extremes, he watches his wife care for Nariman with unfaltering gentleness
and generosity, and he watches the old manís deterioration. "If you
knew a person long enough," he muses, "he could elicit every
kind of emotion from you, every possible reaction, envy, admiration, pity,
irritation, fondness, jealousy, love, disgust. But in the end all human
beings became candidates for compassion." Sadly, Yezad retreats into
a fundamentalist interpretation of a faith that gives him solace, and his
blindness to his own intolerance threatens the repetition of a terrible
Family Matters is, at its shallowest level, a deftly wrought
cautionary tale. At its deepest, it is a testament to the passion,
kindness, and insight displayed by human beings at their best. Yezadís
boss, Mr. Kapur, is not a native of Bombay, and he claims his love for the
city is superior to a nativeís. "Itís the difference between
being born into a religion and converting to it," he explains.
Six doors down from Mr. Kapurís sporting goods shop, the proprietor
of a bookstore reads and writes letters for clients, and realizes that
there is a pattern in the collection of letters. "If it were possible
to read letters for all of humanity, compose an infinity of responses on
their behalf, he would have a Godís-eye view of the world, and be able
to understand it."
Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry received the seventh annual Kiriyama
Prize for this, his third novel. The prize is awarded in recognition of
books that promote greater understanding of and among the nations of the
Pacific Rim and South Asian subcontinent. Thanks to the deep current of
wisdom coursing through Family Matters, readers can broaden their
understanding not only of contemporary India, but all humanity.